LEWISTON — Not feeling so well, a student decided he would stay home from school one day. Then he realized it was Friday. It was “pizza day.”
He made it to school.
“Pizza day here rocks,” said Jay Levesque, principal at the Vineyard Christian School, a private Lewiston campus with 126 students. Every Friday, a kitchen full of volunteers add toppings to between 40 and 50 pizzas and bake them for lunch.
In between bites, students, teachers and visitors all give credit to one particular chef.
“This is Tom. He makes the best pizza on the planet,” said Jenna Stepp, the mother of 6-year-old kindergartner Marie Stepp. Jenna visits her daughter for lunch every Friday.
“Everybody looks forward to Tom’s pizza,” said gym teacher Angela Gagne, the mother of Austin, a 5 year old in the prekindergarten class.
Thomas Harris, 62, of Durham retired from heavy construction work and has volunteered in the kitchen ever since. “I have been surrounded by cooking all my life,” said the father of five sons. “I have been in the kitchen since I was 8 years old.”
While fresh ingredients and a variety of toppings are what makes Harris’ pizzas taste so good, the kitchen help is what stands out the most for Harris.
“It’s not just about the pizza; it’s about the environment,” Harris said. His volunteer staff comprises parents, students and school alumni who keep coming back.
“What I love most is when the kids get involved,” said educational technician Jenn Marcotte. “Friday’s are kind of a community day.”
Kari-Ann Hannigan’s two daughters are former students of Vineyard. They now attend Sabattus Central School and had the day off from school last Friday.
“We have no school today. Can we go eat Mr. Tom’s pizza?” Erika and Cheyenne asked their mom. “We miss his pizza. It’s so good,” said 11-year-old Erika in between hugs from her former classmates.
“They are so happy to be here,” Kari-Ann said.
“Fridays I’m always here” said Vince Hess as he shuffled pizzas in and out of the oven. “Four years of doing this, and I have only dropped one pizza … and never burnt any,” said Hess, who swings in on his lunch break to help out in the kitchen.
“Tom’s pizzas are kind of famous,” Hess said. Mac and cheese pizza, smoked oysters and garlic pizza, and cream cheese and jalapeno pizza are just a few of the pies made by Harris.
“Tom is very creative, so you don’t know what he is going to make,” Stepp said.
“We try to let kids design their own pizzas,” Harris said. “We go through a lot of garlic here. Kids like everything.”
One senior created a pizza made with M&M’s.
“We will try anything once,” said Adam Carlson, a 2007 graduate who comes back every Friday to help.
Nearly 100 percent of the kids choose hot lunch on pizza day. “That is a day that I don’t have to make lunches,” said a smiling Marcotte, who has five children in the school. “My kids love (pizza day). My mom asks me to bring home pizza,” she said. If Marcotte’s husband can’t stop in to eat lunch with the kids on Fridays, he requests that pizza be brought home as well, she said.
People say it’s Harris’ attitude that makes him such a success at tossing pizzas.
“Tom’s energy level is amazing,” Hess said. “A lot of the kids call him grandpa.”
“Cooking is fun. Pizza is fun. I try to teach the kids that,” he said. “Grandmothers used to teach everyone how to cook. We don’t have that anymore.”